Media and misinformation

A new survey is out from World Public Opinion.org, which contains some depressing, though unsurprising findings concerning political misinformation.  Voters tend to be misinformed overall, and misinformation tends to be filtered through partisan lenses.

For example, two-thirds of Republicans wrongly believed that the economic stimulus bill contained no tax cuts, compared with less than half of Democrats.  On the other hand a majority of Democrats incorrectly believe that President Obama has not increased U.S. troop presence in Afghanistan, compared to two out of five Republicans.

What force could be driving political misinformation?  The study has some provocative findings concerning the correlation between media exposure and misinformation.

Those who watched Fox News almost daily were significantly more likely than those who never watched it to believe that:

  • most economists estimate the stimulus caused job losses (12 points more likely)
  • most economists have estimated the health care law will worsen the deficit (31 points)
  • the economy is getting worse (26 points)
  • most scientists do not agree that climate change is occurring (30 points)
  • the stimulus legislation did not include any tax cuts (14 points)
  • their own income taxes have gone up (14 points)
  • the auto bailout only occurred under Obama (13 points)
  • when TARP came up for a vote most Republicans opposed it (12 points)
  • and that it is not clear that Obama was born in the United States (31 points)

These effects increased incrementally with increasing levels of exposure and all were statistically significant. The effect was also not simply a function of partisan bias, as people who voted Democratic and watched Fox News were also more likely to have such misinformation than those who did not watch it–though by a lesser margin than those who voted Republican.

Many on the left are crying that this study proves that watching Fox News makes people dumber.  This is not a valid conclusion to make.  First of all, MSNBC viewers also tended to be more misinformed on other issues, though these effects are more limited in comparison.  Second, the authors of the study are pointing out a correlation; they are not making a causal argument.  Third, this study measures misinformation, not intelligence.  All it indicates is that Fox News and MSNBC may be biased (shocking, I know).

This does not mean these findings sit well with me.  Political knowledge rates are abysmally low in this country, which has corrosive effects on political participation rates.  Public knowledge of the Constitution is also pathetic – more individuals can name the Three Stooges than can name the three branches of government.

Spinning issues through partisan filters is an American tradition, but I would remind pundits from both parties to heed the warning of Daniel Patrick Moynihan: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.”

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Filed under Civics Literacy

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